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Assets Based Development

Well-intended people are seeking solutions to the inequality and delays in social-economic development throughout the world by taking one of two divergent paths. The first path begins by focusing on a community’s needs, deficiencies and problems. The second path insists on beginning with a clear commitment to discovering a community’s capacities and assets. The first path is the traditional and by far the most traveled path. Among development activities, this ‘first path’ commands the vast majority of financial and human resources. For responsible, committed and traditional professionals, this ‘first path’ is usually the initial step of project implementation. The following is a discussion intended to explain why an attempt to add the second path is recommended to be among subsequent project objectives.

The Traditional Needs-Driven Path

The ‘needs-driven path’ produces images of problematic and deficient communities populated by needy and problematic and deficient people. These negative images, which can be conceived as a kind of mental ‘map’ of the community often convey part of the truth about the actual conditions of a troubled community. But they are not regard as part of the truth; they are regarded as the whole truth.

Once accepted as the whole truth about troubled communities, this ‘needs’ map determines how problems are to be addressed through deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private and nonprofit human service systems, often supported by university research and foundation funding, translate the programs into local activities that teach people the nature and extent of their problems, and the value of services as the answer to their problems. As a result, many lower income and troubled communities are now environments of service where behaviors are affected because residents come to believe that their well being depends upon being a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to be producers. Consumers of services focus vast amounts of creativity and intelligence on the survival-motivated challenge of outwitting the ‘system’ or on finding ways—in the informal or even illegal economy—to bypass the system entirely.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about the process that leads to the creation of client communities. In fact, it is important to note how little power local neighborhood residents have to affect the pervasive nature of the deficiency model, mainly because a number of society’s most influential institutions have themselves developed a stake in maintaining that focus. For example, much of the social science research produced by universities is designed to collect and analyze data about problems. Much of the funding directed to lower income communities by foundations and government is based on the problem-oriented data collected in ‘needs surveys.’

The consequences for residents can be is devastating when the deficiency orientation, represented by the ‘needs map,’ constitutes the only guide to lower income communities. One of the most tragic consequences is that residents themselves begin to accept the needs map as the only guide to the reality of their lives. They think of themselves and their neighbors as fundamentally deficient, victims incapable of taking charge of their lives and of their community’s future. And, other consequences flow as well from the power of the needs map. For example:

  • Viewing a community as a nearly endless list of problems and needs leads directly to the much lamented fragmentation of efforts to provide solutions. It also denies the basic community wisdom which regards problems as tightly intertwined, as symptoms in fact of the breakdown of a community’s own problem-solving capacities.
  • Targeting resources based on the needs map directs funding not to residents but to service providers, a consequence not always either planned for or effective.
  • Making resources available on the basis of the needs map can have negative effects on the nature of local community leadership. If, for example, one measure of effective leadership is the ability to attract resources, then local leaders are, in effect, being forced to denigrate their neighbors and their community by highlighting their problems and deficiencies, and by ignoring their capacities and strengths.
  • Providing resources on the basis of the needs map underlines the perception that only outside experts can provide real help. Therefore, the relationships that count most for local residents are no longer those inside the community, those neighbor-to-neighbor links of mutual support and problem solving. Rather, the most important relationships are those that involve the expert, the social worker, the health provider, the funder. Once again, the glue that binds communities together is weakened.
  • Reliance on the needs map as the exclusive guide to resource gathering virtually ensures the inevitable deepening of the cycle of dependence: problems must always be worse than last year, or more intractable than other communities, if funding is to be renewed.
  • At best, reliance on the needs maps as the sole policy guide will ensure a maintenance and survival strategy targeted at isolated individual clients, not a development plan that can involve the energies of an entire community.
  • Because the needs-based strategy can guarantee only survival, and can never lead to serious change or community development, this orientation must be regarded as one of the major causes of the sense of hopelessness that pervades discussions about the future of low income communities.

The Alternative Path: Capacity-Focused Development

If even some of these negative consequences follow from our total reliance upon the needs map, an alternative approach becomes imperative. That alternative path leads toward the development of policies and activities based on the capacities, skills, and assets of lower income people and their communities.

In addition to the problems associated with the dominant deficiency model, at least two more factors argue for shifting to a capacity-oriented emphasis. First, all the historic evidence indicates that significant community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves and their resources in the effort. This observation explains why communities are never built from the top down, or from the outside in. (Clearly, however, valuable outside assistance can be provided to communities that are actively developing their own assets.)

The second reason for emphasizing the development of the internal assets of local communities is that the prospect for outside help is bleak indeed. Even in areas designated as Enterprise Zones, the odds are long that sustainable large-scale, job-providing industrial or service corporations will be locating in these communities. Nor is it likely, in the light of continuing budget constraints, that significant new inputs of money will be forthcoming soon. It is increasingly futile to wait for significant help to arrive from outside the community. The hard truth is that development must start from within the community.

Creative community leaders have begun to recognize this hard truth, and have shifted their practices accordingly. They are discovering that wherever there are effective community development efforts, those efforts are based upon an understanding, or map, of the community’s assets, capacities and abilities. For it is clear that even the poorest community is a place where individuals and organization represent resources upon which to build or rebuild. The key to generation, is to locate all the available local assets, to begin connecting them with one another in ways that multiply their power and effectiveness, and to begin harnessing those local institutions that are not yet available for local development purposes.

This entire process begins with the construction of a new ‘map.’ Once this guide to capacities has replaced the old one containing only needs and deficiencies, the community can begin to assemble its strengths into new combinations, new structures of opportunity, new sources of income and control, and new possibilities for production.

The Assets of a Community: Individuals, Association, Institutions

Each community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future. A thorough map of those assets would begin with an inventory of the gifts, skills and capacities of the community’ s residents. Household by household, building by building, block by block, the capacity mapmakers will discover a vast and often surprising array of individual talents and productive skills, few of which are being mobilized for community-building purposes. This basic truth about the ‘giftedness’ of every individual is particularly important to apply to persons who often find themselves marginalized by society. It is essential to recognize the capacities, for example, of those who have been labeled mentally handicapped or disabled, or of those who are marginalized because they are too old, or too young, or too poor. In a community whose assets are being fully recognized and mobilized these people too will be part of the action, not as clients or recipients of aid, but as full contributors to the community-building process.

In addition to mapping the gifts and skills of individuals, and of households and families, the committed community builder will compile an inventory of citizens’ associations. These associations, less formal and much less dependent upon paid staff than are formal institutions, are the vehicles through which citizens assemble to solve problems, or to share common interests and activities. It is usually the case that the depth and extent of associational life in any community is vastly underestimated. This is particularly true of lower income communities. In fact, however, though some parts of associational life may have dwindled in very low income communities, most communities continue to harbor significant members of associations with religious, cultural, athletic, recreational and other purposes. Community builders soon recognize that these groups are indispensable tools for development, and that many of them can in fact be stretched beyond their original purposes and intentions to become full contributors to the development process.

Beyond individuals and local associations that make up the asset base of communities are all of the more formal institutions which are located in the community. Private businesses; public institutions such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire stations; nonprofit institutions such as hospitals, clinics, social service agencies—these organizations make up the most visible and formal part of a community’ s fabric. Accounting for them in full, and enlisting them in the process of community development, is essential to the successes of the process. For community builders, the process of mapping the institutional assets of the community will often be much simpler than that of making an inventory involving individuals and associations. But, establishing within each institution a sense of responsibility for the health of the local community, along with mechanisms that allow communities to influence and even control some aspects of the institution’s relationships with its local neighborhood, can prove much more difficult. Nonetheless, a community that has located and mobilized its entire base of assets will clearly feature heavily involved and invested local institutions.

An Alternative Community Development Path: Asset-Based, Internally Focused, Relationship Driven

It is important to place this discussion in its larger contest. Two major qualifications should be stated as strongly as possible.

  • First, focusing on the assets of lower income communities does not imply that these communities do not need additional resources from the outside. Rather the implication is that outside resources will be much more effectively used if the local community is itself fully mobilized and invested, and if it can define the agendas for which additional resources must be obtained. The assets within lower income communities, in other words, are absolutely necessary but usually not sufficient to meet the huge development challenges ahead.
  • Second, the discussion of asset-based community development is intended to affirm, and to build upon the remarkable work already going on in communities. Asset-based community development acknowledges and embraces particularly the strong community-rooted traditions of community organizing, community economic development and community planning. In fact, experienced leaders in these three areas have been among the most valuable sources of inspiration and guidance to asset-based development. The assets-based approach is intended to complement, and sometimes to precede, their efforts—not to substitute for them.
  • These caveats understood, then ‘asset-based community development’ deserves a little more introduction and definition. This process can be defined by three simple, interrelated characteristics:
  • Obviously enough, the first principle that defines this process is that it is ‘asset-based.’ That is, this community development strategy starts with what is present in the community, the capacities of its residents and workers, the associational and institutional base of the area—not with what is absent, or with what is problematic, or with what the community needs.
  • Because this community development process is asset-based, it is by necessity ‘internally focused.’ That is, the development strategy concentrates first of all upon the agenda building and problem-solving capacities of local residents, local associations and local institutions. Again, this intense and self-conscious internal focus is not intended to minimize either the role external forces have played in helping to create the desperate conditions of lower income communities, nor the need to attract additional resources to these communities. Rather this strong internal focus is intended simply to stress the primacy of local definition, investment, creativity, hope and control.
  • If a community development process is to be asset-based and internally focused, then it will be in very important ways ‘relationship driven.’ Thus, one of the central challenges for asset-based community developers is to constantly build and rebuild the relationships between and among local residents, local associations, and local institutions.

Skilled community organizers and effective community developers already recognize the importance of relationship building. For it is clear that the strong ties which form the basis for community-based problem solving have been under attack. The forces driving people apart are many and frequently cited—increasing mobility rates, the separation of work and residence, mass media, segregation by race and age, religion, education, family group and not the least from the point of view of lower income communities, increasing dependence upon outside, professional zed helpers.

Because of these factors, the sense of efficacy based on interdependence, the idea that people can count on their neighbors and neighborhood resources for support and strength has weakened. For community builders who are focused on assets, nurturing these local relationships offers the most promising route toward successful community development.


The skeleton of the second development path can be stated as follows: a community-building path that is asset-based, internally focused, and relationship driven.